The pleasures of life are many and varied.
Some people like to play mahjong and after they have won a
game, you can see how pleased and excited they are, even to
the extent of dying from a heart attack. This kind of
exhilaration revolves around gain and loss. On the other
hand, Tao Yuan-ming's happiness is likened to having
obtained the Way. It is not necessary for one to be very
pious in a certain religion. As soon as you have attained a
certain spiritual and mental equilibrium, you would then
achieve a very peaceful and contented bliss.
In the line, I whistle contentedly by the
east window; the character 'xuan' refers to a window. 'Dong
xuan xia' means beside a window that is facing east. What is
the meaning of the line: For incidentally I have found my
life again? This is yet another wonderful line. In the third
Drinking poem, Tao Yuan-ming had lamented, "They have wine,
yet do not drink, caring only about their worldly
reputation. We cherish the body dearly, because we possess
it for a lifetime. But how long can a lifetime last? It
passes as swiftly as a lightning flash. Being lax for a
hundred years, what can we achieve in this way?" In the
Christian Bible, the Gospel of St. Paul also says, "What
dost it profit a man to gain the whole world, but suffer the
loss of his own soul?" A person spends every day in his
entire life seeking external fame and reputation, profit and
gain; but these are all empty attributes that will disappear
eventually. Tao Yuan-ming mused, "This evening, while
drinking my wine and whistling contentedly by the east
window, I feel that I have truly found myself and that I
have chosen the correct path." This is the meaning of "I
have found my life." However, preceding this, he used two
characters 'liao fu'. I have mentioned previously that Tao's
poems are very concise and to the point, and do not contain
any flowery expressions that require a lot of explanation.
But then he employs a tone that is very subtle and profound.
The sixth poem, There are a thousand myriad ways to act,
ends with the lines:
Treating the foolish people with
contempt, I prefer to emulate Huang and Qi. He declared that
he did not want to pursue empty and illusory things like
other people, but was inclined to follow the footsteps of
Master Xia-huang and Qi Li-ji and lead a life of seclusion.
The character 'qie' in the sixth poem has a similar meaning
to the character 'liao' here in the seventh poem. This is
another point about Tao Yuan-ming that is noteworthy. In the
midst of his self-contentment and bliss, he often portrayed
a feeling of loneliness and disappointment. This illustrates
that Tao could not stay totally indifferent. This is because
if a person had truly achieved the state of 'wang qing'
[detachment], he would just be self-satisfied and not feel
lonely or rejected.
Therefore, you should know that when Tao
Yuan-ming was young, he had the ambition of making his mark
in the world. He once said, "When I was young, I was
strong and brass. I carried my sword and traveled alone."
Then again, he also said, "Hardly involved with
worldly affairs as a youth, I enjoyed studying the Six
Classics." The Six Classics are Confucian texts and the
Confucians advocated the administration of the country in
order to bring about peace. Moreover, in Tao Yuanming's
lifetime during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, the nobility fought
amongst themselves and generals with military power were in
rebellion. During this turbulent period, the people lived in
Some years ago, the Mainland was very
fond of using a revolutionary perspective to criticize
ancient poets. They said that Du Fu cared about the ordinary
folks whereas Tao Yuan-ming adopted a passive attitude by
retreating into seclusion and was not in the least concerned
about the ordinary people. This may not be incorrect, but
then you must understand that Du Fu and Tao Yuan-ming were
two totally different characters. Du Fu expressed his
sentiments externally and that's why his writings were
focused on the outside world and his concern for everybody
at large. On the other hand, Tao Yuan-ming was an
introverted character, and that explains why his works were
mainly about his inner thoughts and reflections. There is a
Confucian saying: The distinguished person extends his
benevolence to all under beaten; the unfortunate person only
benefits himself. Here, the character 'qiong' does not refer
to poverty, but rather to a person who is down on his luck.
If you were an influential person with power and position,
then you would naturally want to govern the country to bring
about peace. However, you might not have this kind of
opportunity or the circumstances might not permit you to
realize your goals. Then the least you could do would be to
take care of yourself first. The latter course of action
arises from a lack of alternatives.
Amidst the chaotic political situation
during the Jin-Song transition period, Tao Yuan-ming was
able to take care of himself. As compared to other literati,
the outcome of his choice was not bad. I mentioned that he
was unable to forget his sentiments because he had not
completely forgotten his concern for his fellow countrymen.
He said, "Although I have found my life and am living in
security, and have achieved contentment and bliss, what
about the rest of my countrymen? What happened to my
original ideals?" Therefore, finding my life is only
incidental because there is no better choice or alternative.
That's why when you read Tao's poems, you must take special
note of this kind of subtle and profound emotion.
~ To be continued